Science

Will NASA's Opportunity rover survive the huge dust storm on Mars?

Will NASA's Opportunity rover survive the huge dust storm on Mars?”

"Keep in mind, we're talking about a rover that's been working at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and designed just for 90 days".

But Opportunity, known to its many fans as "Oppy", remained in relatively good health and in February it marked its 5,000th Martian day, or sol, more than 14 years after landing.

However, a few weeks ago, NASA received distributing news that potentially posed a threat to the "little rover that could". As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometres) - about the area of North America and Russian Federation combined. Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign.

NASA's Opportunity rover is in jeopardy right now, as an huge dust storm now blankets its location on Mars, cutting off the rover's power supply and causing it to lose contact with Earth. Mission team members have a delicate balancing act ahead if the dust storm persists; they'll need to run Opportunity's heaters enough to keep the rover from freezing, but not so much that they run out its batteries.

Artist's conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit.

The steadily dropping power levels forced mission managers to suspend science operations on June 8.

"Not all Mars watchers are thrilled with the idea of a global dust storm, which can adversely affect ongoing missions", NASA noted in a January news release for the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which also described the precise loss-of-power scenario Opportunity now confronts.

Day has turned to night for NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars. The almost 15-year-old rover launched in 2003 and has been exploring Mars since it landed in January 2004. Opportunity first detected the storm on 1 June and it has now grown to cover an area larger than North America, more than 18 million square kilometres (seven million square miles). By now, two weeks later, the dust storm is nearly completely blotting out the Sun! While the rover does have batteries, it's primarily solar-powered, and it's now enveloped in what NASA calls "a dark, perpetual night".

'This latest data transmission showed the rover's temperature to be about minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius).

Dust storms on Mars start with sunlight.

'One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. As soil gets warmed up, updrafts form in the thin Martian air and create dust devils, which suck fine dust high into the atmosphere. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand". While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months. "The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity". Opportunity can sit in the low-power mode "for an extended period of time", Callas said. And if there's one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it's capable of enduring! At this rate, it could have many more years of life left in it!



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